The War on the Poor
I had trouble reading Radley Balko’s article on the saga of Cory Maye. I picture this young man in his quiet home with his 18-month-old daughter asleep in the other room and I immediately think of myself in my quiet home with my young daughter asleep in the other room. I picture the soft sounds of the day after Christmas, the colorful lights on the porch, the echoes of Christmas carols still lingering in the silence. I see my daughter’s face. And then this:
Later, in court, Maye would testify that he awoke to a violent pounding at his front door, as if someone was trying to kick it down. Frightened, he ran to his bedroom, where Tacorriana was sleeping. He retrieved the handgun he kept in a stand by the bed, loaded it, and chambered a bullet. He got down on the floor next to the bed, where he held the gun and waited in the dark next to his little girl, hoping the noises outside would subside.
They didn’t. They got worse. The commotion moved from the front of his home to the back, closer to Maye, and just outside the door to the room where he and his daughter were lying.
“Thought someone was trying to break in on me and my child,” Maye testified.
“And how were you feeling?” an attorney asked.
“Frightened,” Maye said. “Very frightened.”
One loud, last crash finally flung the rear door wide open, nearly separating it from its hinges. Seconds later, someone kicked open the bedroom door. A figure rushed up the steep, three-step entrance to the house and entered the room. Maye fired into the darkness, squeezing the trigger three times.
Maye says the next thing he remembers is hearing someone scream, “Police! Police! You just shot an officer!” He then dropped his gun, slid it away from his body, and surrendered.
A dubious warrant from a confidential informant, a clumsy and militaristic police raid, and in the end all they find is an old roach. A good cop was shot and killed, and a young law-abiding citizen was thrown into prison, sentenced to death, and taken from his family, from his young daughter. Again: I picture myself torn away from my daughter, picture her witnessing these things. Maye was given shoddy legal representation and was sentenced to death for purposefully murdering a police officer. Read the whole thing. (He is now looking forward to a new trial, thanks largely to reporting by Radley Balko and others. See also Balko’s work on hack autopsy expert and court specialist, Steven Hayne.)
I watched the pro-school-choice film The Lottery the other day on Netflix (snarkily dismissed by the New York Times here) and had much the same reaction: what if these were my children consigned to these schools, destined to almost certain failure and poverty? What if I didn’t have a choice? What if the future was mapped out in such stark and desolate terms for my children? Being a parent gifts us with new empathy.
Say what you will about school choice (and I am the first to say there are flaws and problems with school choice that many of its advocates are too quick to dismiss) but very few of us are in a position of no choice at all – the position that the kids and families in The Lottery are in. School choice for me and for mine is not a matter of life and death, and yet I have plenty of it, more than enough. There may be things wrong with the school-choice movement, but I would be a hypocrite at best to say that people with no choice should stay that way. Whatever flaws charters may have, I simply can’t overcome the simple truth of things. I have choice, why should I want to limit the choices of others less fortunate than myself?
It’s important to realize that these stories – the failing schools and the police raids and the young, poor, and disproportionately black men in our overstuffed prisons – these are the same stories, one story.
What if police came to the doors of my friends and families and kicked them down in the dark of night, shot our dogs, and sent our young men to prison? What if my children were imprisoned in failing schools at the mercy of local politicians, powerful teacher unions, and a deeply cynical and entrenched political system? What if we were made into POW’s in the War on Drugs, shuffled out of society after militarized drug raids or pernicious three-strikes policies. We’d start to realize that these are the same kids, first abandoned by their schools and then taken violently away, locked out of society, barred from ever fully returning to it, lost boys and their lost families.
We might start to realize that we have created a country where events like these have become all too commonplace:
In 2000 drug cops in Modesto, California, accidentally shot 11-year-old Alberto Sepulveda in the back of the head at point-blank range during a botched raid on the boy’s home. In 2003 police in New York City raided the home of 57-year-old city worker Alberta Spruill based on a bad tip from an informant. The terrified Spruill had a heart attack and died at the scene. Last year Baltimore County police shot and killed Cheryl Lynn Noel, a churchgoing wife and mother, during a no-knock raid on her home after finding some marijuana seeds while sifting through the family’s trash.
There are dozens more examples.
This isn’t how it works, of course, in middle-class America. For the most part white, middle-class Americans can choose to some degree where their children go to school. For the most part white middle-class Americans do not need to worry that the police will come knocking in the middle of the night.
The War on Drugs and the failing education system in inner cities and impoverished neighborhoods across this country are part of the same narrative, a narrative which costs the American taxpayer billions of dollars a year not only in public spending but in lost productivity, and costs young men and women their lives and futures on a daily basis. No other country in the world locks up as many people as America does. Countries far to the left of America have fare more robust school-choice regimes and promote economic mobility in ways Americans should be much better at. Our War on Drugs is really a war on the poor, and its shockwaves extend far out beyond our borders, rippling across Mexico and Latin America, and further still.
Balko quotes Maye at the end of his piece, and it’s a fitting end to any discussion on this subject:
“We as citizens sit back and say, ‘Well, this could never happen to me.’.…But it’s happened before…and if we don’t take a stand, it’s gonna continue to happen to others.”